US universities face a precipice under a Trump presidency

The United States retains many aspects of a healthy open society. But there are indicators of trouble and deep divisions around the meaning and importance of democratic values. This debate has significant repercussions for universities and their academic communities.

In the simplest terms, there is a ‘red’ and ‘blue’ state divide over the role and importance of public institutions, including universities – ‘red’ representing largely rural states in which most voters vote Republican and ‘blue’ being majority Democratic voters, often with one of the two parties having majorities in their respective state legislatures. Then there are ‘purple’ states in which both parties are vying for dominance, but they are fewer in number.

This divisive political environment and the coming presidential election in 2024 provide a window into a possible scenario that would be cataclysmic for universities, for academic freedom, and for global science networks, not to mention civil liberties in a nation once exalted as an example of a functional democracy: the return of Donald Trump to the presidency and continued Republican control of at least one branch of Congress.

Thus far, Trump has no detailed domestic policy agenda. His current campaign largely comprises a set of grievances regarding his election loss to Joe Biden, promises to slash non-military discretionary federal funding that includes higher education and to pursue massive regulatory cuts, and plans to gut federal agencies of civil servants and to install loyal adherents to his cult of personality.

He and his followers cling to an isolationist, ‘America first’ foreign policy. In this agenda, and in a plot to consolidate unprecedented powers in the presidency, lies an existential threat to universities, and civil society.

Beyond the repetitive theme of universities as bastions of liberal extremism, the Trump campaign has made few significant statements on his plans for higher education beyond two proposals.

First, to replace ‘radical left’ college accreditation agencies – independent, self-regulated and largely regional accreditors, but that need official recognition by the US Department of Education to allow students access to federal grants and loans at specific colleges and universities.

And second, Trump has just announced plans for a tuition-free national online college funded by taxing the endowments of wealthy, largely private universities, as well as fines, and imagined federal lawsuits. It is probably a non-starter, but good for the campaign trail as another pathway for breaking up the liberal-leaning higher education marketplace.

As implied, with relative stability provided by the Joe Biden administration, much of the action in US higher education policy-making by lawmakers and the public is currently at the state level. The following provides a glimpse into a possible future, with Trump’s possible return to the presidency.

The precipice

Unlike virtually every other country, the US has no federal ministry of education that can issue edicts and demands that would, for example, have greatly empowered Trump and his administration’s attempts to eviscerate the funding of academic science.

Federal higher education policy in the US is largely limited to funding and managing student aid under the US Department of Education and supporting academic research through federal agencies.

But that is not to distract from the tremendous importance of federal leadership in supporting the nation’s universities and its scientific prowess, including the State Department’s enforcement of visas for foreign students and faculty that are a vibrant part of America’s academic communities.

Taking the Trump administration’s last proposed federal budget, we can get a sense of the financial damage to higher education and science if he were to return to the White House.

It included a 7.8% or US$5.6 billion cut in the Department of Education’s budget, much of it focused on ending a public service loan forgiveness programme and a reduction in federal Pell Grants for low-income students, and transitioning other financial aid grants into loans.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would be cut by 7%, or US$2.942 billion, the National Science Foundation (NSF) by 6%, or US$424 million, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science would lose 17% of its budget, or US$1.164 billion, and NASA science would face an 11% reduction in its budget, or US$758 million.

Many other agencies that fund academic research were slated for large budget cuts, including the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (12% reduction), the Environmental Protection Agency (31%), and the US Geological Survey (30%). Trump repeatedly attempted to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

Trump’s current agenda and that of other ‘MAGA’ (‘Make America Great Again’) Republicans is to severely cut the funding and influence of all federal agencies. One could imagine much larger proposed budget cuts to higher education and science.

A recent proposed budget in the House of Representatives by the Republican majority outlined a 30% cut for all discretionary funding that includes higher education. The rationale? Concerns with the growing national debt. Congress and the president need to act to better align expenditures with revenue. But any reasonable analysis suggests this would mean both cuts and new taxes. Taxes, however, are always off the table with Republicans.

What is going on?

The traditional Republican theme of a smaller role for government generally in society has morphed into a ‘kill the beast’ mantra by starving federal programmes and agencies of funding, no matter what the consequences.

This political view has led to a continuing threat of a federal government shutdown by the Republican-led House by failing to pass a budget bill that raises the nation’s allowable debt level to simply pay for spending already approved by Congress – a strange anachronism that offers an opportunity for multiple points of budgetary chaos.

After a long internal battle within the party, and with a thin majority in the House, MAGA Republicans recently ousted their speaker of the house, Kevin McCarthy, for not being conservative enough. His replacement: a little-known congressman, Mike Johnson, an extreme Christian conservative Trump ally who was the ‘mastermind’ of the legislative effort to deny Biden the presidency.

Culture wars, budget uncertainty and isolationist impulses are sure to continue and play a role if Republicans retain their majority going into 2024.

Another part of the precipice scenario: plans to fire or mute federal civil service professionals with expertise in areas such as climate change, including replacement of the leadership of various federal agencies with Trump adherents who refuse to enforce federal laws and policies related to the environment and regulation of industry.

This was a significant pattern during the Trump administration, reversed by the Biden administration, but still with lasting damage.

There was also a pattern of limiting the ability of existing civil servants, including scientists, to do their job. This included censoring scientists for researching and speaking about climate change, restricting participation and presentations at scientific conferences, restricting access to federally collected scientific data and simply not appointing individuals to key government positions.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric and an isolationist policy agenda would likely bring a return to barriers for international students and scholars visiting or collaborating with US scholars, and perhaps new restrictions on collaborative research and knowledge diplomacy efforts with international partners.

In an indicator of things to come, Trump and other Republican candidates for the presidency have urged the deportation of international students who express support for Palestinians or criticise the Israeli government’s military response in Gaza. Conservative media has also used campus protests related to the Israel-Hamas war, including peaceful calls for a ceasefire, as proof of leftist-leaning universities being anti-Israel.

Biden’s already compromised efforts to reduce student debt would, obviously, be out of the question. There would likely be no efforts to restructure loans or seek some form of mitigation.

The US Supreme Court is also a potential Trump ally in key court decisions affecting higher education. The court majority is conservative and has already stepped in to reject some 40 years of precedent by overturning the use of affirmative action, eroding the autonomy of universities to set criteria for admitting students, and previous student rights for reproductive freedom.

The scenario gets even darker

One theme explored in my chapter on the Trump presidency in the Neo-Nationalism and Universities book was the inept nature of Trump and his administration. Along with the decentralised organisation of funding for science through multiple federal agencies, the ignorance of Trump appointees and Trump himself on how the federal government operates, buffered and protected higher education.

A second term will include a more coherent game plan, what The Economist calls a “meticulous, ruthless preparation”.

Last July, the Trump campaign outlined a strategy to expand the power of the presidency if he is elected. Formulated by right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Project 2025 plan includes ending the independence of the Justice Department, mass de-regulation and new powers to fire and hire civil servants in federal agencies, from the NSF and NIH to the federal Forest Service, with the intent of eviscerating the federal government’s role in American society, and attacking the ‘deep state’.

Part of that dismantling attack includes an already announced plan to revise the nation’s college and universities accreditation process, noted earlier. The stated intent is to reclaim these public and private institutions from the ‘radical left’ and to enforce new standards on their admissions standards and curriculum as well as possibly revising what federal funding is available to campuses.

Part of the motivation for greater accountability relates supposedly to student learning and costs; but it also portends an unprecedented level of federal influence and control over colleges and universities.

Then there is Trump’s politics of personal retribution. Trump has made it clear: with new assumed powers he will go after his real and imagined enemies.

In the initial weeks of his presidency, Trump sought publicity after several days of conflict between Antifa – anti-fascist – and pro-Trump activists on the Berkeley campus and famously tweeted his desire to remove federal funding from the campus. That was an empty threat then, because funding agencies like the NSF have a level of administrative autonomy, with allies in Congress.

But if the power of the president was redefined and expanded, what then? And by harnessing the powers of a subjugated Justice Department to go after dissenters, one can only imagine the scope of attacks on the academic community.

In short, it all adds up to an existential threat to universities, and to civil society, while providing an encouraging message to current and wannabe autocrats of the world.

Keep in mind the strange anomaly that even if Trump is convicted of a federal crime, he can still serve as president, perhaps while in prison or with an ankle bracelet. More uncharted territory.

Then there are the threats of Trump pardoning Trump for any convicted federal crimes.

This possible scenario, of Trump returning to the presidency (in the White House or elsewhere), would be cataclysmic for universities, for academic freedom and for global science networks, not to mention civil liberties in a nation once exalted as a great example of democracy. And there is the likely detrimental realignment of the international order.

America’s much touted universities could enter a sort of dark age.

It can’t happen here?

This scenario is, of course, conjecture. It assumes a Trump return to the presidency, as well as control of at least one house in Congress, and that the past is an indicator of the future.

There are many barriers to this doomsday scenario at the federal level, although politics at the state level are another matter, buttressed by gerrymandering by Republican legislatures, conservative social media, and culture wars.

For example, and despite Republican control of the House and the Senate for two years, the Trump presidency’s yearly draconian budgets targeting deep cuts in financial aid and science were rejected by congressional leaders. In the end, funding increased marginally for some financial aid programmes. Science agencies like the NIH and NSF had good-sized increases.

Why? A partial answer is that traditional Republicans have long valued federal investment in basic research largely conducted in America’s universities as a useful form of corporate welfare and a source of economic innovation – with selected exceptions to play to their political base, like attempts to limit or halt research on stem cells, climate change and gun violence.

One can also see an electoral college path for Biden, or any other Democrat, to win the presidency, and even for Democrats to gain a majority in the House and retain their slim majority in the Senate. Polling currently does not look good for Biden, but polls are ephemeral this early in the lead-up to the election.

Trump’s legal and other woes may eventually take a toll with his base and his stranglehold on the Republican Party. And then there are legal challenges in some states to Trump even being on their presidential ballot. The 14th amendment to the US Constitution makes ineligible candidates who took an oath to uphold the constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion”.

Even if Trump survives as the Republican nominee, Biden is the moderate, and stable, candidate, with an ability to win both the popular vote and the electoral college – even with concerns about his age. And then there is the scenario of a Trump-like alternative emerging as the Republican nominee, and winning, but ultimately governing moderately.

Generally, I have faith that the United States will avoid the ‘Trump returns’ scenario. But I think most practical people do understand that, unfortunately, to paraphrase Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 dystopian novel about the rise of a demagogue who becomes president and then engineers autocratic powers, ‘it can happen here’.

Universities and their political environs

There are stories in almost all the corners of the world of universities under attack and facing new forms of political pressure.

The war in Ukraine, systematic suppression of faculty and student voices in Russia, jailing of the same in China and Turkey, restraints on academic freedom in Hungary and elsewhere, and now the horrific events in Israel and Gaza – all bring home the fact that academics must navigate through the political and harsh realities of the world.

There is also the reality of rising international tensions, including worsening relations with China, a renewed alignment of illiberal and autocratic nation-states, and isolationist impulses in many liberal democracies, that are creating a new academic Cold War.

Universities and their academic communities are often caught in the middle. And it is not always simply a matter of external political forces. Here at home, for example, there is consternation over the proper response and role of American universities to voice a determined opinion on the seemingly intractable conflict in the Middle East.

We have the juxtaposition of largely student-led demonstrations and anger that demands unequivocal support of Israel and its military response in the aftermath of Hamas’s brutal assault, and at the same time adamant pro-Palestinian actors and sympathisers worn out by decades of diplomatic failures regarding a two-state solution and concerned over the havoc now unfolding in Gaza.

Hate crimes by perpetrators on both sides of the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian divide are on the increase. As noted previously, Republican presidential candidates are already calling for the deportation of openly pro-Palestinian international students.

Add to this mix the fact that alumni and others are pressuring university leaders and faculty to make pronouncements of unconditional support for Israel’s military response in this moment of tragedy. This has been accompanied by demands to censor faculty and student-organised events and speakers not properly aligned with such views and even threats to withhold donations at several US universities.

If one believes that universities should be open spaces for civil and informed discussion and debate, then this is not a good development. Thus far, one result is that the nuances of a complex geopolitical conflict, and the tragic human consequences, are seemingly lost, and, one might say, intolerance tolerated – at least at the time of writing this article.

These incidents are different from right-wing, DeSantis-style attacks on universities, but with similar consequences: chipping away at the autonomy that serves as the basis for academic freedom, and trading open debate with threats of ostracism, with pressure for universities to choose sides.

Universities and their academic communities need to, where possible, cabal and strategise on how to fight illiberal tendencies, assert their role as engaged and rational sources of information and expertise, and promote democracy.

They also need to navigate often contentious political environments that are shaped by both external and internal forces. It seems that in the US and elsewhere, the challenges will only get more complex.

John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow and research professor of public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, Goldman School of Public Policy, at the University of California (UC), Berkeley in the United States. He is the lead author of Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, autocrats, and the future of higher education (Johns Hopkins University Press), and is the founding principal investigator of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium based at Berkeley.

This article provides one of four case study updates to the book
Neo-Nationalism and Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, Open Access via Project Muse) to be published by University World News on Russia, China, Eastern Europe and the US. It is adapted from one of four Neo-Nationalism and University case study updates recently published as part of UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education’s Special Thematic Issue – Neo-Nationalism and University Updates: Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and the US.